Theories of Emotion

Learning Objectives

  • Compare and contrast the the Cannon-Bard, James-Lange, Schachter-Singer two-factor, and other theories of emotion

The words emotion and mood are sometimes used interchangeably, but psychologists use these words to refer to two different things. Typically, the word emotion indicates a subjective, affective state that is relatively intense and that occurs in response to something we experience (Figure 10.20). Emotions are often thought to be consciously experienced and intentional. Mood, on the other hand, refers to a prolonged, less intense, affective state that does not occur in response to something we experience. Mood states may not be consciously recognized and do not carry the intentionality that is associated with emotion (Beedie, Terry, Lane, & Devonport, 2011). Here we will focus on emotion, and you will learn more about mood in the chapter that covers psychological disorders.

Photograph A shows a toddler laughing. Photograph B shows the same toddler crying.

Figure 1. Toddlers can cycle through emotions quickly, being (a) extremely happy one moment and (b) extremely sad the next. (credit a: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk; credit b: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)

We can be at the heights of joy or in the depths of despair. We might feel angry when we are betrayed, fear when we are threatened, and surprised when something unexpected happens. This section will outline some of the most well-known theories explaining our emotional experience and provide insight into the biological bases of emotion. This section closes with a discussion of the ubiquitous nature of facial expressions of emotion and our abilities to recognize those expressions in others.

Our emotional states are combinations of physiological arousal, psychological appraisal, and subjective experiences. Together, these are known as the components of emotion. These appraisals are informed by our experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. Therefore, different people may have different emotional experiences even when faced with similar circumstances. Over time, several different theories of emotion, shown in Figure 2, have been proposed to explain how the various components of emotion interact with one another.
The James-Lange theory of emotion asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal. Recall what you have learned about the sympathetic nervous system and our fight or flight response when threatened. If you were to encounter some threat in your environment, like a venomous snake in your backyard, your sympathetic nervous system would initiate significant physiological arousal, which would make your heart race and increase your respiration rate. According to the James-Lange theory of emotion, you would only experience a feeling of fear after this physiological arousal had taken place. Furthermore, different arousal patterns would be associated with different feelings.
Other theorists, however, doubted that the physiological arousal that occurs with different types of emotions is distinct enough to result in the wide variety of emotions that we experience. Thus, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion was developed. According to this view, physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently (Lang, 1994). So, when you see the venomous snake, you feel fear at exactly the same time that your body mounts its fight or flight response. This emotional reaction would be separate and independent of the physiological arousal, even though they co-occur.
Does smiling make you happy? Alternatively, does being happy make you smile? The facial feedback hypothesis proposes that your facial expression can actually affect your emotional experience (Adelman & Zajonc, 1989; Boiger & Mesquita, 2012; Buck, 1980; Capella, 1993; Soussignan, 2001; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). Research investigating the facial feedback hypothesis suggested that suppression of facial expression of emotion lowered the intensity of some emotions experienced by participants (Davis, Senghas, & Ochsner, 2009). Havas, Glenberg, Gutowski, Lucarelli, and Davidson (2010) used Botox injections to paralyze facial muscles and limit facial expressions, including frowning, and they found that depressed people reported less depression after their frowning muscles were paralyzed. Other research found that the intensities of facial expressions affected the emotional reactions (Soussignan, 2002; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988). In other words, if something insignificant occurs and you smile as if you just won lottery, you will actually be happier about the little thing than you would be if you only had a tiny smile. Conversely, if you walk around frowning all the time, it might cause you to have less positive emotions than you would if you had smiled. Interestingly, Soussignan (2002) also reported physiological arousal differences associated with the intensities of one type of smile.
G. Marañon Posadillo was a Spanish physician who studied the psychological effects of adrenaline to create a model for the experience of emotion. Marañon’s model preceded Schachter’s two-factor or arousal-cognition theory of emotion (Cornelius, 1991). The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion is another variation on theories of emotions that takes into account both physiological arousal and the emotional experience. According to this theory, emotions are composed of two factors: physiological and cognitive. In other words, physiological arousal is interpreted in context to produce the emotional experience. In revisiting our example involving the venomous snake in your backyard, the two-factor theory maintains that the snake elicits sympathetic nervous system activation that is labeled as fear given the context, and our experience is that of fear. If you had labeled your sympathetic nervous system activation as joy, you would have experienced joy. The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory depends on labeling the physiological experience, which is a type of cognitive appraisal.
Magda Arnold was the first theorist to offer an exploration of the meaning of appraisal, and to present an outline of what the appraisal process might be and how it relates to emotion (Roseman & Smith, 2001). The key idea of appraisal theory is that you have thoughts (a cognitive appraisal) before you experience an emotion, and the emotion you experience depends on the thoughts you had (Frijda, 1988; Lazarus, 1991). If you think something is positive, you will have more positive emotions about it than if your appraisal was negative, and the opposite is true. Appraisal theory explains the way two people can have two completely different emotions regarding the same event. For example, suppose your psychology instructor selected you to lecture on emotion; you might see that as positive, because it represents an opportunity to be the center of attention, and you would experience happiness. However, if you dislike speaking in public, you could have a negative appraisal and experience discomfort.

A diagram shows a photograph of a snake on the left and a photograph of a frightened person on the right, with an arrow labeled “time.” Beneath the photos are flow diagrams of four theories of emotion: James-Lange Theory, Cannon-Bard Theory, Schachter-Singer Two-Factory Theory, and Lazarus’ Cognitive-mediational Theory. For James-Lange Theory arousal (seeing the snake) leads to the heart pounding and sweating, which leads to fear (emotion). For Cannon-Bard theory arousal (seeing the snake) leads to both heart pounding and sweating and fear (emotion) simultaneously. For the Schachter-Singer Two-Factor Theory arousal (seeing the snake) leads to both heart pounding and sweating, and cognitive label (“I’m scared”) which then leads to fear (emotion). For Lazarus’ Cognitive-mediational Theory arousal (seeing the snake) leads to appraisal, which leads to fear/heart pounding and sweating.

Figure 2. This figure illustrates the major assertions of the James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, and Schachter-Singer two-factor theories of emotion. (credit “snake”: modification of work by “tableatny”/Flickr; credit “face”: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Schachter and Singer believed that physiological arousal is very similar across the different types of emotions that we experience, and therefore, the cognitive appraisal of the situation is critical to the actual emotion experienced. In fact, it might be possible to misattribute arousal to an emotional experience if the circumstances were right (Schachter & Singer, 1962). They performed a clever experiment to test their idea. Male participants were randomly assigned to one of several groups. Some of the participants received injections of epinephrine that caused bodily changes that mimicked the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system; however, only some of these men were told to expect these reactions as side effects of the injection. The other men that received injections of epinephrine were told either that the injection would have no side effects or that it would result in a side effect unrelated to a sympathetic response, such as itching feet or headache. After receiving these injections, participants waited in a room with someone else they thought was another subject in the research project. In reality, the other person was a confederate of the researcher. The confederate engaged in scripted displays of euphoric or angry behavior (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

When those participants who were told that they should expect to feel symptoms of physiological arousal were asked about any emotional changes that they had experienced related to either euphoria or anger (depending on the way the confederate behaved), they reported none. However, the men who weren’t expecting physiological arousal as a function of the injection were more likely to report that they experienced euphoria or anger as a function of their assigned confederate’s behavior. While everyone who received an injection of epinephrine experienced the same physiological arousal, only those who were not expecting the arousal used context to interpret the arousal as a change in emotional state (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

Strong emotional responses are associated with strong physiological arousal, which caused some theorists to suggest that the signs of physiological arousal, including increased heart rate, respiration rate, and sweating, might be used to determine whether someone is telling the truth or not. The assumption is that most of us would show signs of physiological arousal if we were being dishonest with someone. A polygraph, or lie detector test, measures the physiological arousal of an individual responding to a series of questions. Someone trained in reading these tests would look for answers to questions that are associated with increased levels of arousal as potential signs that the respondent may have been dishonest on those answers. While polygraphs are still commonly used, their validity and accuracy are highly questionable because there is no evidence that lying is associated with any particular pattern of physiological arousal (Saxe & Ben-Shakhar, 1999).

Return to the example of being asked to lecture by your professor. Even if you do not enjoy speaking in public, you probably could manage to do it. You would purposefully control your emotions, which would allow you to speak, but we constantly regulate our emotions, and much of our emotion regulation occurs without us actively thinking about it. Mauss and her colleagues studied automatic emotion regulation (AER), which refers to the non-deliberate control of emotions. It is simply not reacting with your emotions, and AER can affect all aspects of emotional processes. AER can influence the things you attend to, your appraisal, your choice to engage in an emotional experience, and your behaviors after an emotion is experienced (Mauss, Bunge, & Gross, 2007; Mauss, Levenson, McCarter, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2005). AER is similar to other automatic cognitive processes in which sensations activate knowledge structures that affect functioning. These knowledge structures can include concepts, schemas, or scripts.

The idea of AER is that people develop an automatic process that works like a script or schema, and the process does not require deliberate thought to regulate emotions. AER works like riding a bicycle. Once you develop the process, you just do it without thinking about it. AER can be adaptive or maladaptive and has important health implications (Hopp, Troy, & Mauss, 2011). Adaptive AER leads to better health outcomes than maladaptive AER, primarily due to experiencing or mitigating stressors better than people with maladaptive AERs (Hopp, Troy, & Mauss, 2011). Alternatively, maladaptive AERs may be critical for maintaining some psychological disorders (Hopp, Troy, & Mauss, 2011). Mauss and her colleagues found that strategies could reduce negative emotions, which in turn should increase psychological health (Mauss, Cook, Cheng, & Gross, 2007; Mauss, Cook, & Gross, 2007; Shallcross, Troy, Boland, & Mauss, 2010; Troy, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2013; Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010). Mauss has also suggested there are problems with the way emotions are measured, but she believes most of the aspects of emotions that are typically measured are useful (Mauss, et al., 2005; Mauss & Robinson, 2009). However, another way of considering emotions challenges our entire understanding of emotions.

After about three decades of interdisciplinary research, Barrett argued that we do not understand emotions. She proposed that emotions were not built into your brain at birth, but rather they were constructed based on your experiences. Emotions in the constructivist theory are predictions that construct your experience of the world. In chapter 7 you learned that concepts are categories or groupings of linguistic information, images, ideas, or memories, such as life experiences. Barrett extended that to include emotions as concepts that are predictions (Barrett, 2017). Two identical physiological states can result in different emotional states depending on your predictions. For example, your brain predicting a churning stomach in a bakery could lead to you constructing hunger. However, your brain predicting a churning stomach while you were waiting for medical test results could lead your brain to construct worry. Thus, you can construct two different emotions from the same physiological sensations. Rather than emotions being something over which you have no control, you can control and influence your emotions

Try It

Two other prominent views arise from the work of Robert Zajonc and Joseph LeDoux. Zajonc asserted that some emotions occur separately from or prior to our cognitive interpretation of them, such as feeling fear in response to an unexpected loud sound (Zajonc, 1998). He also believed in what we might casually refer to as a gut feeling—that we can experience an instantaneous and unexplainable like or dislike for someone or something (Zajonc, 1980). LeDoux also views some emotions as requiring no cognition: some emotions completely bypass contextual interpretation. His research into the neuroscience of emotion has demonstrated the amygdala’s primary role in fear (Cunha, Monfils, & LeDoux, 2010; LeDoux 1996, 2002). A fear stimulus is processed by the brain through one of two paths: from the thalamus (where it is perceived) directly to the amygdala or from the thalamus through the cortex and then to the amygdala. The first path is quick, while the second enables more processing about details of the stimulus. In the following section, we will look more closely at the neuroscience of emotional response.

connect the concepts

Emotional Expression and Emotion Regulation

Emotion regulation describes how people respond to situations and experiences by modifying their emotional experiences and expressions. Covert emotion regulation strategies are those that occur within the individual, while overt strategies involve others or actions (such as seeking advice or consuming alcohol). Aldao and Dixon (2014) studied the relationship between overt emotional regulation strategies and psychopathology. They researched how 218 undergraduate students reported their use of covert and overt strategies and their reported symptoms associated with selected mental disorders, and found that overt emotional regulation strategies were better predictors of psychopathology than covert strategies. Another study examined the relationship between pregaming (the act of drinking heavily before a social event) and two emotion regulation strategies to understand how these might contribute to alcohol-related problems; results suggested a relationship but a complicated one (Pederson, 2016). Further research is needed in these areas to better understand patterns of adaptive and maladaptive emotion regulation (Aldao & Dixon-Gordon, 2014).


Psychology in Music

Neuroscienctist Jospeh LeDoux does more than study emotional processing and conditioning in rats—he is also the lead singer in his band, The Amygdaloids. His band often explains psychological music in their songs. See an example of this in the song, Fearing.

Watch It

Review the theories of emotion in the following Crash Course Psychology video.

You can view the transcript for “Feeling All the Feels: Crash Course Psychology #25” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Think It Over

  • Think about times in your life when you have been absolutely elated (e.g., perhaps your school’s basketball team just won a closely contested ballgame for the national championship) and very fearful (e.g., you are about to give a speech in your public speaking class to a roomful of 100 strangers). How would you describe how your arousal manifested itself physically? Were there marked differences in physiological arousal associated with each emotional state?


body language: emotional expression through body position or movement
Cannon-Bard theory of emotion: physiological arousal and emotional experience occur at the same time
cognitive-mediational theory: our emotions are determined by our appraisal of the stimulus
components of emotion: physiological arousal, psychological appraisal, and subjective experience
emotion: subjective state of being often described as feelings
facial feedback hypothesis: facial expressions are capable of influencing our emotions
James-Lange theory of emotion: emotions arise from physiological arousal
polygraph: lie detector test that measures physiological arousal of individuals as they answer a series of questions
Schachter-Singer two-factor theory of emotion: emotions consist of two factors: physiological and cognitive